African music festival goes smoothly in Mali despite Al Qaeda threats

This weekend's Festival au Desert in Mali ended without incident, but risks remain high as Al Qaeda threatened Monday to kill a French hostage.

The annual music concert series, Festival au Desert, wrapped up this weekend without incident in the dunes outside of Timbuktu, putting to rest fears that Islamist extremists might attack the event or try to kidnap some of the hundreds of foreign tourists who attended.

Yet the risks in northern Mali remain high, as a group calling itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb threatened Monday to kill a French hostage it kidnapped last November unless the Malian government releases 20 Al Qaeda prisoners. The threat to kill Frenchman Pierre Camatte comes just days after Al Qaeda’s cell in western Africa sought $7 million in ransom for the release of two Spanish hostages captured in Mauritania and thought to be held in northern Mali.

"The Mujahideen [religious warriors] have decided to inform the French and Malian governments of their only condition and demand for the release of the French hostage Pierre Camatte, which is the release of our four prisoners arrested by Mali several months ago," Al Qaeda said in a statement posted Sunday on an Islamist website, and translated into English on the SITE Intelcenter website Sunday.

Al Qaeda activities around northern Mali – including a string of kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers from Mauritania, Mali, and Niger – prompted the US and British governments to issue travel warnings late last year for their citizens to stay out of northern Mali. The threat to kidnap foreigners – and cautionary warnings from Western embassies – have been devastating to Mali’s important tourism industry, and also to the delivery of development aid to Mali’s more farflung nomadic communities in the arid Sahel region. Most foreign aid groups have pulled their international staffers out of Northern Mali since November due to the rise in Al Qaeda threats. 

The very fact that Al Qaeda is ready to negotiate, for money or for prisoner exchanges, suggests both that the Al Qaeda cell is weakened in an increasingly unfriendly world and is also more likely to carry out dangerous acts, says Rinaldo Depagne, a West Africa expert at the International Crisis Group.

“They are trying to survive, they are badly wounded,” says Mr. Depagne, speaking by phone from his office in Dakar, Senegal. “They are obligated to act in order to survive, otherwise they will be forgotten.

Yet it would be wrong to count out Al Qaeda at its moment of weakness, he adds.

“In some ways they are more dangerous, because they have to do things, to make attacks,” Depagne says. And if they succeed in getting ransom money, they will quickly have resources that have been denied to them by more aggressive law enforcement and financial surveillance. “With money you can do many things. Money is a far better weapon than their very strange ideology.”

The Festival au Desert, usually held in the caravan town of Essakane, was moved to the dunes just outside of Timbuktu this year to provide concert-goers with better security, and tour operators say that among the thousands of attendants were some 250 foreign tourists, who ignored the travel warnings from their own embassies.

“The festival happened with no security problems whatsoever,” says Mohamed El-Moctar, a tour operator and owner of a guesthouse in Timbuktu. “The reason they moved the festival is political, but it was a very good idea.” He chuckles. “The festival was just one kilometre from my guesthouse.”

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